Monday, March 2, 2009

"The Biggest Threat Is not Social Unrest but Societal Breakdown" (2)

by Sun Liping, Professor of Sociology at Tsinghua University

(Continued from yesterday's post)

[in translation]

8. Society has lost the ability to think long-term. Vested interest groups formed on bureaucratic capitalism pay overly great attention to short term interests; they have neither the ancient emperors' responsibility toward their descendants, nor the nobleman's detachment and transcending spirit. There is a tendency in our society for an exaggeration-syndrome over short-term problems to co-exist with a numbness-syndrome over long-term behavior. For every problem at the moment, each bush and tree looks like an enemy soldier; Problems concerning our descendants and society's long-term development all meet with a blind eye. "Get drunk today when there is still wine" becomes institutionalized behavior. With resource and environmental issues, they drain the lake to catch all the fish. Facing institutional malpractice, they put off whenever they can. The city of Handan went through ten mayors in a decade. The national average for a mayor's term is now 1.7 years. In the first half of each term, the job is to "hold up [the new leadership] onto the horse and accompany them for a distance"; in the second half of the term it is to search for and train the successor. Power and interest before one's eye is everything; there is no time to do real things.

9. Why can't counter-corruption be carried out effectively? This shows how things are weighed from the perspective of vested interests, i.e., which is more frightening, the corruption, or the prospect of appealling to society in order to institute counter-corruption measures? This logic of course holds for a corrupt individual, but when it transforms into an institutional logic, the problem becomes severe. Unfortunately, the above logic is far from non-institutional. Many years of counter-corruption activities basically stop at the point of making a show and killing the chicken to frighten the monkey. When it comes to substantial measures in countering corruption, despite the fact that everyone, top to bottom, knows what is going on, there has never been fundamental progress, let alone an appeal to society to implement measures for counter-corruption.

10. Maintaining vested interests is a tiring job, and our society has placed too much of its energy and resources behind this. To maintain vested interests, freedom of speech must be suppressed. Just think about it, how much energy and resources have been used to suppress those voices? To maintain vested interests, democracy the obstruction must be bypassed using every possible means. Just think about it, how much energy have we wasted on justifying, how many reasons and theories have we made up, in order not to have democracy? To maintain vested interests, we have to suppress the people's rightful expression of interest, as a consequence how many mass incidents have brewed, and how much energy has been spent on resolving those mass incidents? To maintain vested interests, we don't dare to adopt many effective counter-corruption measures used in other countries, and we have to use those clumsy and ineffective campaign-style methods. How much more energy and resources have been wasted with those campaigns? One must know that, to simultaneously realize the two goals of maximizing vested interests and maintaining normal operation of society is a considerably difficult and laborious thing to do. It tires our system, and it tires the management. The psychological burden is heavy from the system to the manager. More importantly, to maintain vested interests, our society needs to pay a deeper and further cost. For instance, why do we have to criticize universal values on a grand scale? Does something in universal values make us lose our temper? To be frank, it is democracy and liberty. Because they threaten vested interests, but to directly criticize democracy and liberty does not sound good, so those in power have to take on universal values. In today's faithless and morally degraded reality, even universal values become the subject of criticism, the consequence is predictable. But for the sake of vested interests, it has to be done.

11. The root cause for societal breakdown is the formation of bureaucratic capitalism. In the past, many viewed power and the free market as two opposite things, now one can see the two things are married in China. This is like two people whom others think it would be impossible to marry are wed. Not only they married, but they live well together. In the past there was this thought that power would be restricted in a market economy; Now it is exactly the emergence of the market that provides power with greater opportunity for its use. The market is the market in which power plays a role, power is the power used in the market. Furthermore, power is traded at a better price in the market. This is the problem we face right now. In 2002 I raised the "broken society" concept (see Vested interest groups under bureaucratic capitalism can form a divide between "us" and "them." As analyzed above, this divide has created a psychological distance.

12. China's realm of ideology faces the marriage between power and money. Both power and markets need to be regulated, but more importantly the link between the two must be severed. Recently Mr. Mao Yushi proposed to "prohibit the rich from having power, prohibit the powerful from making money," which is the same idea. We must see that the key problem is the marriage between power and money. But the situation in China's current realm of ideology is like this: Presently, power and money the seemly unmarriageable two have made a family and are living well together. Now, a dispute appears between the leftist and the rightist. One says, in the family, the husband is a good husband, the wife is a bad wife. The other says, but the wife is the good one and the husband is bad. The two sides quarrel fiercely, while the married couple are living their sweet life.

13. Due to the wrong way of thinking, all kinds of measures in "maintaining stability" have made it impossible to carry out reforms to help society's health, and the consequence is further exacerbation of societal breakdown. Social unrest can be handled by "maintaining stability," while societal breakdown is much harder to deal with. I recall the time when the former President of Philippines, Estrada, fell because of corruption, one American media outlet commented that the internal wound caused by the country's corruption might need its people to pay the cost for 100 years. When corruption becomes a life style, when corruption becomes an irreproachable value, when corruption becomes a thing that everyone curses yet everyone wants, the entire social life enters a state of metamorphosis. History will prove that, "stability" not only can't prevail over everything, its pursuit can destroy everything. The stiff thinking to have stability prevail over everything will kill any sprouting effort at making our nation healthy.

14. The marriage of power and money and the corruption it causes have fundamentally distorted China's social development process. Last year was the 30th anniversary of China's reform. At such an important moment, people expected a serious summary and in-depth reflection upon the past. Regrettably however, cheap praise and meaningless set-expressions lost the great opportunity. This shows we have lost the ability and courage to face reality, including reform. In fact, as I emphasized in a series of articles in 2005, to some extent reform is becoming a war of property robbery. The consensus on reform has basically fallen through; the drive for reform has been lost. The reason? It is that reform is constrained by the frame of vested interests. Even the really open-minded reformer is unable to get rid of such constraints. In this situation, the mechanism to distort reform has formed. Even a reform with the best motive can have the opposite result.

15. Actually, China's reform is neither as good as some have said, nor as bad as others have said. I never agree to completely attribute the economic development speed and the improvement in people's material life to reform. As long as there are no unusual natural or man-made disasters, the economy will develop as a matter of fact. Some people often compare today's material life with that of 30 years ago, in order to illustrate the success of reform. But in fact, in addition to the fact that normal social development has been driven by technology progress, the decrease of birth rate and average family size is also an important factor. If today's cities, had many families with 3 children, what kind of life would it be? Therefore we can say that reform and opening-up have benefited from family planning, and that reform has benefited from opening-up (which speeds technological progress). This is not to deny reform, but to take a rational attitude toward it. The real meaning of reform is to transform China from a distorted and metamorphic society into a normal society and merge it into the mainstream of human civilization. A market economy is only a limited part of it. And this process is far from complete, in recent years has even been retreating.

16. China's reform has congenital deficiency. Reflecting on its starting point can help us re-think a few issues. China's reform actually did not start from "the verge of collapse of the national economy." The launch of the reform was the result of several forces combined. There was people's desire to improve their economic condition, and there was intellectuals' ideal of changing the status quo, but more importantly there was the demand from those who lost their power in the Cultural Revolution to return to the power center. The latter includes two kinds of people: those who wanted to return to the 17 years before the Cultural Revolution, and those who wanted to borrow the opportunity to advance into a new civilization. In the early 1980s reform was controlled by this part of the people. However, what was in contrast to the situation then was only the absurd years of the Cultural Revolution, therefore the power-holders were full of confidence. This confidence created the enlightened period of the 1980s. However the surface progress concealed the fundamental deficits of the reform, i.e., its lack of a real value target that leads to a new civilization.

17. "Stability" has begun to become a means to maintain the existing structure of vested interests. (The end)


Anonymous said...

What is needed is a Government with an earth and human friendly approach, not a drive to capture all manufacturing while polluting the planet and driving people to horrible worthless lives in factories. Has nothing to do with capitalism and was worse for people under communism.

Xujun Eberlein said...

You seem to have missed the point of this article. The author is arguing against maintaining "stability" at the cost of everything else, including environmental destruction. Speaking of Chinese factory life, ironically, you might be surprised to know that it was generally better before China's Cultural Revolution than in today's sweatshops, because the working class was "the leading class" then. But that is beyond the point of this article, and that fact alone does not justify either communism or capitalism.

I agree with you that, to have a rational discussion on China's problems, we should go beyond specific ideologies. While China is still a totalitarian country, it's hardly a communist one any more (despite its continuous labeling). And even the central government's totalitarian power is weakened by local and sector powers. To focus on either capitalism or communism is like the "bad husband or bad wife?" joke Professor Sun cited, neither addresses the real problem.

Mark Anthony Jones said...

Xujun - thanks for providing this translation on your site. I read it with much interest, though I think Professor Sun's analysis is bizarre, to say the least. The argument "against stability" is crazy - especially if its rationale is based partly on a desire to manage the environment. Instability will surely lead to an increase in environmental destructon, as resources will be plundered in a free-for-all at the local level - with lawlessness, comes the kind of chaos one associates with the concept of social Darwinianism.

Professor Sun's argument that China is heading for "societal breakdown" is both alarmist and reactionary in my opinion - I say "reactionary" because he is reacting both negatively and irrationally to the structural changes that are taking place in China's globalised economy. China's many consequent problems, although real, need to be weighed against all the positives. China's problems are manageable and according to most academic experts, are in fact being managed reasonably well in most areas - as well as can be expected for a lower-middle income country at least.

Finally, I disagree with your description of China as a politically "totalitarian" state. China is politically decentred - it's a market-preserving federalism with a one-party political system, as opposed to America, which is a market-preserving federalism with a two-party political system.

You ignore too, the growing significance of China's large number of active NGOs, an increasingly critical media, the power of the Internet as a transmitter of both foreign and domestic news as well domestic grassroots-generated news, opinion and analysis, and of course there is also, very importantly, the country's evolving system of law - already a "thin" "Rule of Law" - all of these serve as agents of democracy and are far more significant than the socially and politically alienating "right" to fill in a ballot paper once every four years or so to chose between two political parties that are essentially the same, funded by the same corporate sponsors: in Western two-party parliamentary systems, both contenders eat from the same trough.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Mark, you are either misinterpreting Prof. Sun's arguments or playing the trick of switching concepts. He certainly is not advocating "instability" over "stability." Rather,
his main criticism is that "stability" has become a means (or excuse) to maintain the existing structure of vested interests.

I have the impression that you seem to also be dwelling on your "vested interest," i.e., your fixed position on China matters. As such you tend to ignore evidence that runs against your position and refuse to update your views.

On the other hand, I agree with part of your last paragraph, i.e., the part about the increasingly critical media and the power of the internet in China. Prof. Sun's article itself is evidence of this, as I noted in the introduction. Of course people also can, and do, choose to ignore the critical voices.

Mark Anthony Jones said...

Xujun - Professor Sun may very well be criticising China's mainstream obsession with stability, arguing, as you say, that the need to maintain stability shouldn't be exploited as an excuse not to challenge the status quo, with all its corruption, etc., but I still think that he is being alarmist and reactionary. He idea that China is heading for societal breakdown is surely alarmist!

As for my own views about China, which you say I need to update, well....what are my views exactly? And how ought I to update them? What do you know of my views, I wonder, since I have yet to articulate many of them here on your website, and since I am in fact, constantly revising them. I haven't really expressed my analysis of China very much at all, anywhere online, apart from my views on the Tibet issue - see, if you're interested, the American Public Broadcasting forum in response to the "China from the Inside" television series at:

We agree that China is becoming increasingly more democratic though, it seems!

Mark Anthony Jones said...

Xujun, one more thing: I am in fact in the very slow process of putting together a website of my own, titled "China Discourse", on which I plan to articulate in detail my views on today's China. I have not launched the site yet, as I still have five more essays to complete - on China's rule of law, democracy, the Tibet Issue, Tiananmen revisited and the legacies of the Mao era.

I have however, already completed and posted the Introduction, which outlines where I'm coming from philosophically, as well as essays on China's human rights situation and China's globalisation. I have also started a blog, a book review page and a photo essay page. A few people are already aware of the site, and have started to leave comments.

If you're interested in what I really think about China, then please feel free to visit the site. I have added this blog of yours to my blog list too, by the way.

The address is:

best regards,

Anonymous said...

agree that sun's views are too exagerating, every country has moral decays according to the society's moral statesmen and media.

Alfonso said...

This is interesting, and in line I think with your post

Sun Liping (孙立平): The Biggest Threat to China is not Social Turmoil but Social Decay (Part I)